It's December. The fields are, for the most part, bare and barren. There is little in season that wasn't already on shop shelves back in November. However, now is not the time for the new: December is all about the holidays and traditions. Channukah is well on its way, and will be done by the end of the week. Even if one had potato latkas every night for eight days, few would even entertain the idea of complaining, and even fewer would give in to the temptation to try something different, such as vegetable galettes... And then, there is Christmas.
Even for non-Christians, Christmas holds a place in many a heart. It's not about the presents, the trees, or even the lights. It's about family, friends, and traditions. That word again: tradition. It's about your mother's top tip for the perfect roasted veg; it's your gran's scrumptious stuffing recipe; or maybe it's about your grand-pa's secret for the best ever fruitcake, the one that you squirrel away and nibble at weeks, nay months, later... It's about watching the same movies every year at around the same time. It's about the those cheese straws Aunt May always brings to brunch. It's about the food you share with loved ones. Now is not the time for innovation and new-fangled recipes.
However, every day in December is not Christmas, so while you may be knee-deep in preparation for the big day, you can still dabble in a few new recipes every now and then... In fact, they could even end up under the tree. Or in the freezer, for those days when baking trays of gingerbread men gets in the way of making dinner.
Sprouts were never part of my Christmas panorama. However, I understand that they are not only traditional holiday fare in the UK, but also in parts of Canada and the US. In any case, sprouts are great in the midst of winter, and their flavour improves greatly after a few hard frosts. In Britain, stalks of Brussels sprouts remain in the fields, ready and waiting for the holidays. Sprouts should never be cooked til mushy, as it not only renders them hard to digest, it completely leaches away all flavour and interest in them. In fact, the best way to cook sprouts is either to shred them, and give them a quick stir-fry with lots of garlic, and maybe some chilli; or to cut them in half and to give them a brief spin in boiling, salted water before rolling them in some melted butter. Brussels sprouts should be eaten still slightly crunchy.
Chestnuts are often tossed through buttered sprouts. But, even though they are quite nice that way, I prefer them roasted in a dry pan, until they pop. They're also great to keep in your pocket when walking outdoors, as they will not only quell a grumbling tummy, they will keep your hands warm for a little while. They are also divine candied in a vanilla syrup, as the French are particularly fond of - in fact, marrons glacés are practically a requirement on the French Christmas spread.
If there is one thing you may be able to tweak at Christmas-time, it may well be the dessert at the end of dinner: if so, you should try a chocolate and chestnut yule log. Mix chopped chestnuts in syrup, broken marrons glacés, or crème de marron (a sweet, sticky chestnut paste that is to die for on buttered toasts! It comes in a tin) through a chocolate ganache, and fill the yule log. Sprinkle with cocoa powder, followed by a little icing sugar.
Key limes, Sicilian lemons, Seville oranges, California navel oranges, and Moroccan clementines. Is there really more to say?
Just in case: home-made marmalade makes a great gift, but for those who are not partial to marmalade, a thick syrup made with zest, juice and sugar is delightful drizzled on ice cream or a plain cake, or even in a glass of sparkling water or wine... These citrus are also a great addition to mulled wine, beer, cider, whatever you fancy...
No, not the crusty, trampled-on stuff that is already on the ground. You want the stuff that is still wending its way down, fluffy and feather-like as it dances in the air. Stick your tongue out, and look up at the sky, just like children do, not a care in the world. The sheer pleasure of it does not grow old.
December is about cherishing traditions.